Scientists study the "last" ancestor of apes and humans

Infant ape's tiny skull could have a big impact on ape evolution

A 13-million years older baby ape's skull has been uncovered at northern Kenya by a team led by Dr. Isaiah Nengo.

Although our ancestral lineage is still far from clear, getting any clues that help us understand what ape ancestors from this period looked like is big news. Those specimens also date to around 13 million years ago.

It is noted that the skull of this creature, even in 2014 found the Kenyan fossil hunter John Akuse and gave him the title of "Alesi", which comes from the word "ancestor".

This skull provides cognizance into early Ape's brains. These so-called hominoids - that is, the gibbons, great apes and humans - emerged and diversified during the Miocene epoch, approximately 23 million to 5 million years ago.

"The quality of our images was so good that we could establish from the teeth that the infant was about 1 year and 4 months old when it died", Paul Tafforeau, a researcher with the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, said in a press release.

The scientific journal Nature has published Dr. Nengo's findings in detail.

Dr. Nengo told The Leakey Foundation that, "the discovery of Alesi thus helps to confirm that the common ancestor of humans and apes evolved in Africa". They also said that several aspects of the new species link it to living apes.

Analysis of this tiny skull shows that this ancient species was more monkey-like than it was ape-like. Modern gibbons are smaller apes and somewhat resemble monkeys, but they are tailless like other apes.

The dating of the skull was done by analyzing the rock layer from which the fossil was pulled, and by measuring the argon isotopes.

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In September 2015, about a year after the fossil was excavated, Nengo obtained government clearance to hand-carry the skull from Kenya to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France.

The infant's baby teeth were missing due to the fossilization process, but its unerupted adult teeth and molar roots remained intact. The researchers established this age by counting the layers within the fossilized dental structures, a process akin to counting tree rings.

The find is the most complete extinct ape skull known in the fossil record. "This complete skull - it is now forever going to be a touchstone for all future studies in primate evolution and growth and development in the apes, so it's fantastic in that way". If the animal was fully grown it would have weighed in at 25 pounds and looked like a gibbon. In tree-dwelling primates, like gibbons, the canal is larger and helps the animals keep their balance and orientation as they swing through the trees.

The Nyanzapithecus alesi cranium suggests that the species was slower and less agile than acrobatic, arm-swinging apes such as gibbons, the study says. At this critical stage in evolutionary history, apes were already moving away from a purely arboreal existence.

"The living apes are found all across Africa and Asia - chimps and gorillas in Africa, orangutans and gibbons in Asia - and there are many fossil apes found on both continents, and Europe as well", study co-author Christopher Gilbert, a paleoanthropologist at Hunter College in NY, told Live Science. "That was important to know".

"Finding Alesi is just the beginning", she says. In particular, Begun doesn't agree that Nyanzapithecines should be recognized as a distinct group, or that they were more modern than other known primates from the time, namely Proconsul (an extinct genus of primates that lived between 23 to 25 million years ago) and Ekembo (a similar genus that lived 20 to 17 million years ago).

But the traits this specimen shares with modern apes makes it likely that it's at least a relative of the common ancestor that all existing apes (including humans) came from.

So the debate continues, as does the paleontology. A new fossil found in Kenya shows what that ancestor might have looked like.

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